Not Your Everyday Banana

by Bart Arondson

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I am attending the Coca Cola 600 NASCAR race next weekend in Charlotte, NC. Much of the race will be after dark, illuminated by the track lighting.

I will be using a Nikon D-80 with an AF-S Nikkor 55-200mm 1:4-5.6G ED VR lens. What do you suggest I do? Auto setting for shutter and Aperature? Go manual? A priority? S priority?

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please post results once the event is done! –  Andrew Heath May 25 '12 at 0:27
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5 Answers 5

Have you considered renting a faster long lens. The one you have is pretty slow. Charlotte is a big racetrack (Not as big as Daytona, but still big) and a 200mm is not going to get you close if you are up in the stands or in the infield.

You might like the Nikon 200mm f/2G AF-S VR or the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM

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Yup, I was typing the same thing. It really sounds like a good case to rent a lens. –  rfusca May 21 '12 at 14:57
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Try to make the most of the provided lighting. There will undoubtedly be areas of the track that are lighter than others and the lighting will be coming from different directions. Either try to position (if this is an option), or spot the areas on the track where the lights are working for, not against you.

If you have selected points on the track you know you are going to want to take pictures, because the light is in your favour or it’s just a more interesting piece of the track, consider pre-focusing on that area and waiting for the cars to come to you. If you do this using shutter half press / manual focus / back button focus, it will help to prevent the camera from hunting for focus at the critical time and you missing the shot.

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Disclaimer: this assumes that you are sitting in the stands and don't have access to a special press area. Also, I've never been to a race at Charlotte but have been to races at Talladega (day) and Phoenix (both day and night).

This is a long race and you should have time to try lots of settings to see what works best (ISO, aperture, shutter). I've had the best luck shooting the cars as they come around a corner toward me. (A quick image search shows lots of examples). With my consumer level gear, I didn't have much luck freezing the cars as they passed in front of me, although a few of the shots had a nice blur effect.

Be mindful of the substantial fence between the spectator seating and the track. You may need to use manual focus. The track personnel will probably not let you stand next to the fence longer than a few seconds. Also, there will be nowhere to setup a tripod (if they'll even let you bring it in).

Have you considered renting a faster lens?

Finally, don't forget the fans--lots of interesting subjects!

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Right, there are at least two big, heavy fences between you and the track. A few years ago, a car exploded into the fences, so NASCAR moved them back and made them thicker. For a clear shot, you have to be way up high, which means a really long lens. The Charlotte races are long, maybe 3 hours or more. Move around. Don't try to freeze cars, pan and get the motion/feeling of speed. You might even want to rent a faster body. But I wouldn't do the body rental your first race. –  Pat Farrell May 22 '12 at 3:39
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When it's dark there are several ways you can take a shot which is properly exposed:

  • Increase aperture
  • Use a long shutter speed
  • Increase ISO
  • Use a flash

I will treat the above points one-by-one for the situation you described.

Increase aperture

Your lens has a maximum aperture of f/4 when at 55mm and f/5.6 when at 200mm. So to get the aperture as big as possible you should get as close as possible to the race track such that you use the lens close to the 55mm with f/4.

To increase your aperture, set your mode dial to A-priority or Manual, zoom out, and set your aperture to f/4.

Long shutter speed

For this option it is advisable that you use a tri-pod or some other stabilizing apparatus. Without it you will have camera-shake-blur. As you're at a car race keep in mind that very long shutter speeds will blur out the motion of the car.

For example:
NASCAR cars have an average velocity of 130 km/hr = 36.1 m/s
If you use a shutter speed of 1/30s this would mean that the car moves
36.1*(1/30) = 1.2m while you take a shot. Depending on your distance to the car this might produce noticeable blur.

If you use a tri-pod, get one which enables you to rotate the camera around the vertical axis easily. This enables you to track the car with your camera, creating shots like these. An alternative to a tri-pod is a DIY stabilizer as described here.

To set the shutter speed on your camera, set the mode dial to S priority or Manual.

Increase ISO

By increasing the ISO value you turn up the gain of your camera sensor. This has the desirable result that the sensor outputs a stronger signal and the undesirable result that the sensor generates more noise. Depending on your own taste you can decide what is an acceptable level of noise and based on that you can set your ISO value.

On your camera the maximum ISO is 1600. Try it out before the race to see if this maximum setting generates an unacceptable amount of noise. Also see if you can remove the noise with a post-processing program.

Use a flash

Set-up and off-camera flash along the racing track which is (wireless) triggered by your camera when you release the shutter. I don't think this is a realistic option, as a flash might distract the driver, but who knows. If you use a flash, try to use a long shutter speed nonetheless as this enables your camera to capture the natural light present at the scene.

TL;DR

Use S priority with a not too long shutter speed. Use a tri-pod.

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If using aperture priority doesn't give a short enough shutter speed, switching to shutter priority isn't going to help because the aperture is already opened as wide as it can go. In other words, switching from aperture priority to shutter priority won't help. –  Dan Wolfgang May 21 '12 at 14:22
    
@DanWolfgang: By switching to shutter priority, you will get under-exposed shots, but it may be possible to salvage some of them in post (especially if shooting raw). –  Flimzy May 21 '12 at 14:30
    
Ok, that makes sense... but then why start in aperture priority? –  Dan Wolfgang May 21 '12 at 18:47
    
Good point. Edited my TL;DR answer. –  Bart Arondson May 22 '12 at 1:03
    
I don't think a tripod will generally be useful. Perhaps if you get a 400 or 600mm lens, then you need a gimble mount. A standard ball head is not going to help much. I don't know if flash would effect the driver, but when I was racing at Charlotte, I was busy on the banking. if you distracted me, I'd probably kill you. –  Pat Farrell May 22 '12 at 3:41
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Well, you've got standard options for taking pictures at night:

  • Raise ISO. Almost certainly going to have to do that.
  • Open Aperture. Get as close as you can (since you have a variable aperture lens) and open it as wide as you can.
  • Use a slower shutter speed. Luckily, with races, a slow shutter speed combined with the panning technique is what you want. This will keep the car sharp and blur the background to show movement.
  • Flash isn't going to be an option for you.

Overall, if you want good pictures though - I'd consider renting a lens with a better max aperture and possibly longer if you don't think you'll be able to get close. Consider something like a 70-200mm f/2.8 or a 300mm f/2.8 if you think you won't be able to get close. If you think you can get closer (which is doubtful), consider something like a 85mm f/1.4 (or 1.8) or a 135mm f/2. Any of these will allow you to shoot at a lower ISO and get cleaner pictures. Renting these for a weekend usually isn't too pricey. You might even consider our lending program - we'd love a blog post about racing pictures.

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